We've all experienced the intimidating to-do list. Everyone at some point will find themselves accumulating a formidable list of things to do, but successfully completing that list without being overwhelmed and stressed is another story.
To-do lists are a way of organizing what needs to get done, preventing you from forgetting the important tasks while reminding you of your responsibilities. On a positive note, a to-do list limits unnecessary stress because you don't need to worry about remembering what you need to accomplish. Crafting a to-do list also provides you with a sense of control and order and an effective tool for time management if used the right way. However, there are times that your motivation and stamina are in short supply, yet your growing to-do list needs attention.
To-do lists usually make us think we should be able to get it all done now and when we can't check off the tasks on our list, we become self-critical and unmotivated to do it all over again.1 But what if you could manage your tasks and time, set realistic expectations, and actually complete the items on your to-do list all while feeling good about what you got done today instead of feeling bad about what you didn't, and realistically couldn't, do? With the following 12 strategies, you can work and study smarter and feel more productive and accomplished.
1. Choose a method of creating your to-do list
If you're “old school,” you may prefer to write your to-do list with pen and paper; if you're tech-oriented, you may choose one of the many smartphone and digital device apps. Your preferred method of creating your to do-list is significant because the more comfortable you are with your method, the more likely you'll stick to it in terms of recording, reviewing, and prioritizing your tasks. Once you've written or recorded all your tasks, you'll begin to sort them and, in the process, those tasks that need priority will become apparent, whereas others can wait.2
2. Make your to-do list the day before
This is a tough one. Sometimes, creating your to-do list can be a task in itself and you don't want to overwhelm yourself by taking on more than you can handle. Some experts recommend the 1-3-5 rule, which is one big task, three medium tasks, and five small tasks to accomplish in one day. Others recommend limiting your to-do list to three items total, especially if you're a beginner at working with to-do lists.3 I personally prefer the latter and like to keep my list small so I can keep my focus solely on accomplishing only those tasks.
It's important to remember to put only tasks on your list, not objectives or goals. Goals are big accomplishments. Objectives are the steps you take toward achieving your goal. When you break down an objective into smaller parts, you have specific actions, which are your tasks. For example, if you're a nursing student, your goal is to graduate. Your objective is to pass your courses. Your tasks are completing your course readings and assignments, studying for exams, and doing everything else on the course syllabus that contributes to your course grade.
Finalizing your to-do list the evening before is helpful because you can reflect on the tasks you really need to accomplish. This reflective thought process will save you valuable time as you start your day with a plan already in place. Without a plan for the day, it's easy to get distracted and lose motivation. Prioritize important, tougher tasks that need to get done. Choose no more than two priority tasks for each day, and work on those first. Once accomplished, you can enjoy the satisfying feeling that you've completed these tasks and any remaining tasks will seem easier by comparison.4
3. Determine realistic deadlines
Any time a task has a due date, add it. Seeing when tasks are due helps you prioritize and the more specific you are, the more likely you are to get more done. By assigning due dates to your tasks, you're cleverly planning out your week, which is also an excellent time management strategy. It's beneficial to adjust your expectations periodically so you can feel good about crossing off completed tasks, making you feel more accomplished and balanced.4
4. Estimate how much time you need to complete each task
Be realistic with how much time the task requires to be completed. This is a key factor. Some tasks may take only a few minutes, whereas others may take several hours to complete. If a task on your to-do list can't be completed in 1 day, it isn't considered a task and needs to be further broken down into something more manageable. We think we can add lots of tasks to our to-do list and believe we can get them all done. Most of us underestimate the time required to complete a task; as a result we become frustrated, which negatively affects our sense of accomplishment. It's better to be flexible and overbudget the time necessary to complete a task.5
Write the time estimation next to each task or schedule the task in blocks of time like you would on a calendar. Try to leave at least 10 to 20 minutes of unscheduled time in between the items on your to-do list as a safety net. This leaves you wiggle room in the event you need more time to complete your task or there's an unexpected interruption. For example, I may choose to work on my priority task first thing in the morning, from 8 a.m. to 10:10 a.m. The 2-hour time block is my estimation of how long it will realistically take me to complete the task. The last 10 minutes is my built-in safety net time. We all know life happens, and we need to adjust for it.
5. Find your best productive “power” time
Are you an early morning person who gets most tasks accomplished before the rest of us have taken our first sip of coffee? Or are you a night owl who's most productive when the rest of us have gone to sleep? Discovering when you feel most energetic and using that time is a well-kept secret to checking off to-do list tasks and feeling good about yourself.
6. Set up your work/study space
Your workspace is as individual as you are and should feel inviting, be quiet and well lit, have a comfortable chair and desk/table area, and have an ambient room temperature on the cool side. Make it a habit to do your work or study in this space only. This way your brain becomes trained with a focused purpose to be alert and productive when in this space.
7. Remove distractions
Once you've determined your best productive power time and set up your work/study space, don't allow distractions to tempt you. Put your phone on silent and avoid looking at your email and social media sites. Use noise-canceling headphones or close the door if you feel you'll be interrupted. Use this time for focusing exclusively on the priority tasks on your to-do list within the time frame you previously budgeted.
8. Take breaks
Scheduling planned breaks throughout the day keeps you motivated and on track to complete your task before the next break. Use your breaks to energize your body by getting up from your chair and moving. Leave your workspace. Take a walk outside, eat a healthy snack, or text a friend or family member. Breaks can help you reset and recharge, which can help you get more done.
9. Plan rewards
Treat yourself to a small reward after completing one task on your to-do list. When you have something to look forward to, it encourages and motivates you to tackle the next item on your list.
10. Write an accomplishment list
If you feel you haven't achieved much on your to-do list today, instead write down what you've actually done. Include everything from walking your dog to cooking dinner, calling your family member, and so on. Now, look at what you wrote and give yourself credit for everything you've done because all these things add up. Writing down the things you've accomplished may feel simplistic but every time you write down an accomplishment, it gives you the motivation to persevere with your to-do list.4
11. Be kind to yourself
Being kind to yourself is an important component in the overall balance between your health and success. This means that along with your to-do list and your scheduled times for working on your tasks, you also devote some time for yourself, whether in the form of exercise, mindfulness, connecting with friends and family, or binge watching your favorite show.
12. Throw out your to-do list at the end of the day
Don't leave your list with only a few tasks crossed off for tomorrow because that isn't appealing or inspirational. Instead, throw it out and make a new one for tomorrow, reprioritizing your smaller list.
A feeling of achievement
A to-do list functions as a means to an end, and it's up to you to identify and accomplish the tasks that will bring you closer to completing your objectives and achieving your professional and personal goals. Your to-do list should contribute to your overall happiness, not control your life. Once you discover how effective the to-do list can be, you'll be amazed by how much you get accomplished. There's a great feeling each time you complete a task and cross it off your list. In fact, the bigger the task, the better you feel once it's accomplished.
Repeating this 12-step strategic approach daily will hone your ability to prioritize and focus on what matters most to you. As you become proficient at managing your to-do list, you'll experience better productivity, more accomplishments, and greater satisfaction. Remember, don't be self-critical if you don't complete all your tasks—we're only human. Tomorrow is a new day to start over again. Indeed, that's a real achievement!